19 February 2017

The Political Culture of Fascism

Jairus Banaji discusses fascism and its three best thinkers of the left, Rosenberg, Reich, and Sartre.

This text is the transcript of a lecture given to the students and teachers of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, on 11th March 2016 as part of the JNU Nationalism Lectures series. Jairus Banaji is Research Professor in the Department of Development Studies, SOAS, University of London. In 2016 he publishedExploring the Economy of Late Antiquity: Selected Essays (Cambridge) and is currently writing a book called A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism.

Jairus Banaji at JNU

What I want to do is talk about fascism in a strictly historical context, I will leave you to draw the kinds of analogies, connections and overlaps that what I’m going to say suggests to you in terms of whether it resonates with our situation in India today, okay? I am going to leave that to you. The three themes I want to talk to you about, which I think are key elements of the political culture of fascism, are as follows.

The first is about the constructed nature of nationalism, you can also call this general theme ‘fascism and the myth of the nation’. The second theme is associated with Wilhelm Reich, who was a psychoanalyst who worked in Berlin and had a considerable influence on sectors of post-war feminism. Reich’s thesis was that patriarchy and the authoritarian family are the mainstay of the state’s power in a capitalist society. This formulation enables us to integrate feminism and revolutionary Marxism in a way in which they are not often seen as being integrated with each other. I’ll repeat that, because it’s such an important formulation: Reich’s thesis is that the authoritarian family is a veritable ‘factory’ of reactionary ideology and structure and as such it is the mainstay of the state’s power in a capitalist society. But particularly so under fascism, where this relationship between the two becomes overtly posited. And the third thesis I want to present to you by way of describing a third element of the culture of fascism is Sartre’s conception of manipulated seriality. I will explain later what I mean by that. At the heart of fascist politics is what he calls manipulated seriality. We need to understand this term “seriality” to understand the dynamics of politics in any capitalist state.

So these are the three broad planks or strands of argument I want to briefly speak about. The first one, the constructed nature of nationalism or what I’ve called ‘fascism and the myth of the nation’ is something that emerges very clearly in a short book that the German Marxist Arthur Rosenberg published in 1934, barely a year after he fled from Germany. Rosenberg was a Reichstag deputy for the Communist Party, that is to say, in Indian terms, he was a member of their Lok Sabha, because Germany had a similar political structure to ours, federal as well as central. He was not just a communist, he was on the left wing of the German Communist Party or the KPD, one of the leading figures of what was called the ‘Berlin Left’, along with the philosopher Karl Korsch. He resigned from the KPD in 1927 because he resented the excessive Russian interference in the affairs of the German party.

Now, the very title of Rosenberg’s essay shows you how original his contribution was to the left-wing understanding of fascism, because it was called Fascism as a Mass Movement. The Comintern didn’t really believe that fascism would last long. It didn’t believe it had deep roots. The Comintern saw fascism as a conspiracy hatched by finance capital, as if a collection of German bankers could sit somewhere and make fascism happen; as if Hitler was simply a puppet of finance capital; and as if the kind of mass appeal that the Nazi party generated in the late 1920s and early 1930s had no roots deeper than finance capital, which is a ridiculous view because it so reductive, it completely misses what is so unique to these kinds of right-wing movements. SoFascism as a Mass Movement was a direct challenge to the Comintern’s understanding of fascism, in other words, to the official Soviet line on fascism, i.e. that it doesn’t have deep roots and that it has nothing to do with culture and with mass mobilisation. What did Rosenberg argue? There are interesting overlaps between the three theses that I’m talking about, between Rosenberg, Reich, and Sartre, the three best thinkers of the left on the issue of fascism, there are interesting connections between the way they argued about fascism which I’ll try and draw out a bit later.

Arthur Rosenberg

In Rosenberg, the argument is essentially as follows: fascism only succeeds as a mass movement; it might exist in a society politically, within the political spectrum, but it will remain marginal as long as it has not mobilized a mass base. (I said I wouldn’t talk about India but look at the watershed of the 1980s in India to see this. The state-sanctioned pogroms of 1984 gave renewed legitimacy to mass violence and for the first time fuelled the expansion of communal forces further to the right.) So fascism only succeeds as a mass movement, that was the central argument of Rosenberg’s essay. But then the question becomes – how does fascism, how do right-wing movements, construct a mass base? That is the vital question we have to try and understand in our context here in India. His answer, it’s a very interesting answer, was that the ideology which people call “fascist” was already widespread in Europe by 1914. Now remember that the Nazi party wasn’t formed till the 1920s, and Hitler and the Nazi party didn’t become important until the very end of the 1920s, when the economic crisis hit Germany full blast.

So what is Rosenberg saying when he says that the ideology we call ‘fascist’ was already widespread in European society by 1914? He is reversing the relationship between politics and ideology, he is saying the ideology is not a creation of the political party, the political party or movement is a creation of the ideology. So he is pointing to some slow-moving process within European politics and society which can be traced back to the 1870s and 1880s, and what is that? As and when parliamentary democracy began to spread in Europe, the traditional elites of European society were faced with a dilemma, namely, how do they win elections? I mean, these traditional elites have absolutely no appeal to the masses, absolutely none. They represent the interests of big business and big landed property, why on earth would they have any appeal to the masses, because they are in fact the oppressors of the working people. But this is in fact where the oppressor’s ideology becomes important, because the kind of politics that emerged in Europe in the 1870s and 1880s is what Rosenberg called a ‘new authoritarian conservatism’. A conservatism of this type became widespread in Europe. The ‘new authoritarian conservatism’ was the nineteenth-century precursor of fascist ideology, of the fascisms that became more dominant later on.

Now fascist ideology is actually only a pastiche of motifs, it is a pastiche of different ideological currents, it has very little coherence on its own. It’s important to say this because it means you have to try and look at the individual components of a fascist ideology, and these should be obvious to us by today, for example, anti-semitism and other forms of racism; support for a strong state that can act externally, they wanted German capital to become German imperialism so that it could compete effectively on the world market, hence support for imperialism, for an aggressive external thrust; hostility to labour, incredible hostility to labour and to the organised working class; authoritarianism and connected with that patriarchy; and the last and most important of these components, of the kind of ideological pastiche that makes up fascism, is nationalism. The key to the success of the Right wing in European politics from the 1870s onwards lies in the emergence of a new kind of nationalism, which European politics hadn’t known before the 1870s. That kind of aggressive, xenophobic nationalism was not there on the European scene in 1848, it wasn’t really there even in the 1860s when Marx was writing Capital, it became dominant and much more aggressive, overtly aggressive, from the 1870s onwards. And that’s partly linked to the rush for colonies, the whole frantic rush to divide up Africa, to grab pieces of territory and so on. But it’s not only linked to that. I don’t want to have a kind of economic-reductive explanation of nationalism itself.

So what do I mean by the constructed nature of nationalism, why call it fascism and the myth of the nation? Do nations exist? Simple question, do nations exist the way that classes exist? Let me ask you that. I know what a class is when I see it. I know what the middle class is in a city like Bombay and I know what kind of culture is epitomized by the middle class in India today. So I can see the middle class, I see its culture, I see its politics, and if I were living somewhere else, for example in rural India, I would confront other classes. I know what the working class looks like, I know where the working class is employed and there are other working classes who are not employed in large-scale units of production, they are employed in the home and so on and so forth. But the point about class is that these are real communities, these are real existing entities, even when they have no sense of themselves as such. Who on earth would want to argue that a nation has the same ontology as a class, that a nation exists in the same sense that classes exist?

Since nationalism is one of the main themes in these lectures, let me just sum up my own position vis-à-vis the two dominant interpretations or models of nationalism accepted currently. The first is associated with Ernst Gellner. Gellner’s position was totally supported by Hobsbawm. The other position, which in some ways became more popular from the 1980s is the one Benedict Anderson argued in Imagined Communities. Benedict Anderson describes the nation as an imagined community, but he wants to give a sort of positive spin to the word “imagined”, which is very, very different from the way Gellner understood nations and nationalism. Hobsbawm has this to say on the constructed nature of nationalism: ‘With Gellner, I would stress the element of artefact, invention and social engineering which enters into the making of nations’, then he quotes Gellner, quote, ‘Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying people, as an inherent political destiny is a myth,’ that’s why I said fascism and the myth of the nation. ‘Nationalism, which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them and often obliterates pre-existing cultures, that is a reality,’ and that’s the dissymmetry here, nations are a myth, nationalism is a reality, and then Hobsbawm, by way of agreeing with this, says, ‘In short, for the purposes of analysis, nationalism comes before nations. Nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way around,’ that’s the argument made by Gellner and Hobsbawm, which I completely agree with.

Now in contrast to that, Anderson says, ‘Gellner makes a comparable point when he rules that nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness…’ (why not? because nations don’t pre-exist nationalism) ‘He [Gellner] invents nations where they do not exist. The drawback to this formulation,’ says Anderson, ‘is that Gellner is so anxious to show that nationalism masquerades under false pretences, that he assimilates invention to fabrication and to falsity rather than to imagining and creation.’ Now look at the dividing-line here: one of them is saying – nations are fabricated, nations are fabrications; the other guy is saying – No, no, not quite, they are imaginings. So Anderson prefers to put it like that, imaginings and creations. In this way Anderson is implying that for Gellner true communities exist which can be juxtaposed to nations. What does Anderson have in mind? Very clearly, class. It’s very clear that he has class in mind, for him class is as imagined a community as the nation is. What does he mean by imagining? The nation is imagined as a community, because it is always conceived as a ‘deep horizontal comradeship’. Amazing! The obvious question, the big elephant in the room facing Anderson here is, Who does the imagining? Even if you suppose that nations are imagined communities, who on earth is doing the imagining? As far as I’m concerned he hasn’t answered that. And what sense does ‘comradeship’ have with the kind of profoundly unequal divisions that make up any country? What sense does it make to talk about a nation as a ‘deep horizontal comradeship’? I can understand class being conceived and discussed in those terms, but not the nation.

Liah Greenfeld

There’s one more thinker I want to bring into the picture, her name is Liah Greenfeld. She wrote a book called Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity in which she examines nationalism in the context of France, Russia, Germany, etc. Now, she makes an interesting point which has a direct bearing on India. ‘Much more often a nation is defined not as a composite entity’, that means as something made up of individuals, ‘but as a collective individual (This is creepy! It reminds me of Arnab Goswami…) endowed with a will and interest of its own, which are independent of and take priority over the wills and interests of human individuals within the nation.’ Those human individuals are you and I, real people, real existential entities, we meet with each other, we talk to each other and so on. But no, Arnab will have none of this, for him the supreme individual, the only one that matters is “the nation”: ‘the nation demands to know!’ Arnab keeps screeching at us every evening. So what does Greenfeld say about this conception of nationalism? ‘Such a definition of the nation results in collectivistic nationalism.’ Collectivistic nationalism is a good term for what we are up against in India today. ‘Collectivistic nationalisms tend to be authoritarian and imply a fundamental inequality between a small group of self-appointed interpreters of the will of the nation– the leaders – and the masses, who have to adapt to the elite’s interpretations.’ Self-appointed interpreters of the will of the nation is precisely what we are up against in India today! As Greenfeld says, this nationalism is intrinsically authoritarian. In India a collectivistic, authoritarian nationalism is exactly what is being pushed down our throats today and used against the students in JNU.

That’s one part of Rosenberg’s argument, the argument about the constructed or mythical character of the nation. There is another part which is worth drawing attention to. Remember he said that the ideology which is called fascist was already widespread by 1914, so in a sense, Nazism was a product of that ideology, not the other way around. But Rosenberg went on to make another important point. He said, what was peculiar to modern fascism was the ‘stormtrooper tactic’, as he called it. What’s peculiar to modern fascism are the stormtroopers. Now, we’ve had a lot of experience with stormtroopers here in India recently, but I had promised I’d not talk about India, so I’ll leave it to you to make the connection.

‘Stormtroopers’, the term basically comes from warfare. These are those elite squads that storm the trenches of the enemy. In trench warfare, which was the dominant method of warfare in the First World War. If you’ve seen this brilliant film called War Horse, it’s all about trench warfare, which is one of the bloodiest, most manual forms of warfare imaginable. True, they had already started having aircraft and so on but the bulk of the killing took place in the fields, and it took place across trenches and between trenches, and trench warfare was essentially about storming the trenches.

Now transposed to politics, this is what the stormtrooper does. The Left did not invent the concept of the political stormtrooper, it was the Right that invented it. The stormtroopers were those squads, in Italy they were called squadristi, that helped the Italian landowners in the south break strikes by sharecroppers, break those strikes, eliminate, murder the leaders of their unions in southern Italy. When the industrialists in the north saw what the stormtroopers were doing in the south, they invited them to the north, because they were confronted by working-class insurgency, so they invited the stormtroopers to the north.

Squadristi 1944

Now the important point about the stormtroopers is what Rosenberg says – and I want to quote from this book because it so accurately captures the political scenario of the last six weeks. This is what he says about the stormtroopers:

‘The activities of the stormtroopers of the fascist type are in complete violation of the laws. Legally, the stormtroopers should be tried and sentenced to prison, but in fact nothing of the sort happens. Their conviction in the courts is pure show, either they do not serve their sentence or they are soon pardoned. In this way the ruling class shows its stormtrooper heroes how grateful and sympathetic it is.’

Basically, the argument here is that fascism begins to flourish in a bourgeois democracy only with the active complicity and the connivance of the state. We’ve experienced this recently in the last six weeks, we’ve seen how entities of the state have reacted, how events have unfolded. The complicity, the connivance of the state in allowing a free hand to the stormtroopers is a crucial part of the story of why fascist organisations do not simply disappear from the scene, they are covertly patronized by the existing state even when that state, formally speaking, represents a constitutional democracy such as, for example, the Weimar Republic in Germany or our own democracy in India. So much for Rosenberg. I think those two or three insights are quite valuable.

Now, I want to move on to Wilhelm Reich, to an entirely different level of mediation from Rosenberg’s picture of the kind of aggressive xenophobic nationalism that emerged in Europe in the late nineteenth century. Reich’s key thesis is that patriarchy and the authoritarian family are the mainstay of the state’s power. And in a sense Reich is not moving away from the theme of nationalism, he is addressing the same theme, what he is suggesting is a mechanism for the inculcation of nationalism from a young age.

Reich published The Mass Psychology of Fascism in 1933, a year before Rosenberg’s booklet. He had started drafting the book in 1931, and the problem he confronted was, why do the working masses allow themselves to be mobilized into movements that are manifestly opposed to their economic interest? This is a riddle. Why do the working people allow themselves to be galvanized behind right-wing chariots. Why? It’s a real riddle, because those movements have nothing to offer to the working masses. This riddle, Reich argues, cannot be solved economically, he rejected reductionism of any sort, there was no economic solution to the riddle, there was no economic explanation for it. On the other hand, if the solution to the riddle lay in ideology, we would have to explain what it means to say this, and that is what Reich sets out to do by making the family central to the kind of subjectivity pre-supposed in fascism.

The word ‘subjectivity’ now comes into the picture. There is a fascist subjectivity. There is a subjectivity presupposed in fascism and in the way it works, and the great themes that Reich develops in The Mass Psychology of Fascism can be summed up in the three vectors that run through the first two chapters of his book (there’s an excellent translation ofTheMass Psychology by Theodore Wolfe availablehere). The crucial part of Reich’s book is his conception of ideology as a material force. In other words, ideology has nothing to do with ideas in some abstract sense, it is not a mental phenomenon, it is very much rooted, bio-psychologically grounded, in structures that are moulded by the family, by ‘tradition’, and by a repressed and often brutalized sexuality. In other words, ideology is a material force, it is grounded in the family.

The second vector that runs though Reich’s argument is his conception of patriarchy as the mainstay of the state’s power. I mentioned this earlier. And thirdly, Reich claims, there is a resonance between the authoritarian character-structures that are moulded inside the patriarchal family and the Führer ideology which is characteristic of all right-wing mass movements. Now this Führer ideology revolves around a mass leader, someone with a strong, commanding will and ability to dominate the masses. Was Indira Gandhi a Führer in this sense? Not quite, she was an authoritarian leader, a strong-willed authoritarian political figure. She was quite capable of imposing a state of emergency on the whole country, but what political figure can you think of in India’s recent political experience that strikes you as coming close to the figure of a Führer? A mass leader with a commanding will, a massive chest and so on?  But who is it that creates the Führer? The people who support the Führer, the Führer would be nothing without those people. So that’s what Reich is driving at, that to explain this dialectic between leader and mass we have to invoke character-structures of a certain type, the authoritarian, repressed character-structure and the resonance this finds in the structure of the Führer; one creates or at least allows for the other.

Again, there is a reversal of causality, a reversal of the direction in which the influence moves. Again it is the ‘mass’ that comes first, the mass culture that comes first, and the politics that comes second. Politics in some sense is a reflection of that mass-culture. So I won’t say anything more about Reich, I think the whole idea of the family as a ‘factory’ of reactionary ideologies, not all families, but traditional, authoritarian families, patriarchal families as factories of reactionary ideology, is fundamental. And the family as a battle-ground where the child will either survive as an independent individual later on in life, or be permanently scarred by childhood, defeated on the battlefield of childhood, defeated in the family. There’s a brilliant movie by Theodor Kotulla called Aus einem deutschen Leben (Death Is My Trade, 1977), it’s about a concentration-camp commander, and it traces the biography of this individual. The man ends up on an assembly line processing death in the concentration camps in the 1940s, so the director is effectively asking, how could such an individual be formed? What is the process that allows for such an individual to emerge? Biographically, existentially, how can someone end up manning concentration camps, working on assembly lines of death? So the film starts with childhood and it’s a violent childhood, in a typically lower-middle class, rural Prussian family, with a violent authority figure in the family, namely, the father. Now this is the first sense in which the child confronts the state.

Aus eindem deutschen Leben scene

In childhood, if you cannot stand up for your mother against your father, if you cannot resist the violence of your father, there is a definite sense in which you have already lost the battle. When you grow up, become an adult, you are not going to be able to survive the battles of authority, you will go on to be submissive to your employer, worship the state, you will worship state authorities and cringe before the power they embody. The mechanism involved here is identification, it’s a kind of compensation mechanism, you lost in childhood, now as a grown-up you identify with authority, there you are, you have won. Now, carry this one step further into the realm of fascist politics and you’ll see where the Führer figure is coming from.

There is a brilliant passage in Mass Psychology where Reich talks about the individuals who support and worship the Führer as people who felt completely helpless in childhood. He stresses this helplessness, because when such children grow up, they seek compensation in this particular form. They lack any kind of independence of their own. They cannot think critically, they have been dominated emotionally, been scarred by childhood, and so on. So think about this. Think about the importance of character-structures, the kind of structures that are being moulded in the ‘traditional’ family in India and elsewhere. And again feminism has a major role to play, here is one of those bridges between feminism and Left politics. To talk about the family as the site of the first class struggle, the first battle, the first battle with authority.

Now, to Sartre, finally Sartre and his conception of manipulated seriality as the heart of fascist politics. There are classes in society, Sartre doesn’t dispute that, but he divides society into those who are organised (that is, groups) and those who are not (series). It’s a straightforward sociology; if you are organized you can do things, you have some degree of power; if you’re not, you can’t do a thing and you can have everything done to you. Take this away as the main lesson of this particular lecture, the division between organised groups and the unorganised mass which he calls ‘seriality’. When you wait at a bus stop for a bus, you have no intrinsic connection with the other people who are waiting for the bus except the bus itself. The bus is what unifies you, the bus is your external kind of unity, but otherwise you have no internal relationship with the people you’re waiting for the bus with. So he takes the example of the bus queue and develops it further and further. The type of ensemble we are talking about here is the series, and seriality is the condition of being part of the series.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Groups dominate series because they are organised and have the capacity to act collectively. The vast mass of any modern society forms part of the inert structures that Sartre calls the series. Here ‘inert’ simply means unable to act, powerless. The state for Sartre is an ensemble of organised groups most of which have long ago evolved into institutions. We talk about the bureaucracy, the army, the media, political parties and so on, but have you wondered about the kind of dense institutional realities these entities represent? They are profoundly institutionalised and have become part of automatically functioning machines. The important point is that these ‘machines’ would be literally unintelligible to us unless we assumed that they all emerged out of organised groups, just as the groups themselves emerged out of series/seriality, as every group does. The ruling class can rule because at its heart lies an ensemble of organised groups that have the capacity to control and dominate the masses. That’s why trade unions are so important for workers. The union is their first experience of collective strength and solidarity. As an organised group it has the capacity to confront other organised groups. Employers are of course extremely well organised. So are the media. The organised groups that form the backbone of the media and of employers as a class are part of the vast ensemble of groups that make up the power of the state.   

So what does ‘manipulated seriality’ mean? Well, this is Sartre’s argument: organised groups are constantly working serialities. He says working serialities, meaning working on serialities or working on series, by a process which he calls ‘extero-conditioning’. He takes that term from an American sociologist called Riesman in The Lonely Crowd. For example, the millions of news consumers who watch the same TV channels with no connection between themselves except the anchor and the news they watch, believing what the others believe, as if there really are ‘others’ who believe all this, are a perfect example of manipulated seriality. As long as ‘social media’ is organised differently, this danger is much less there. The process of domination of organised groups over series is the essential process by which rule occurs. How does the ruling class rule? It rules in this particular way, as the domination of groups over series. Under the pressure of extero-conditioning, series become ‘worked matter’.  As serial behaviour (pogroms, lynchings, ‘riots’, etc.) violence is worked matter, the product of organised groups acting on series in particular ways.

When Sartre says that manipulated seriality is the heart of fascist politics, it is this group/series relation he has in mind. The pogrom is the sovereign group (the state) or a non-state organised group directing serialities in such a way that it is actually extracting actions from series. There is nothing spontaneous about pogroms. The series is manipulated from the outside to act as if this was the organic action of a group and not the passive activity of a series. (A criminal jurisdiction that prosecutes only those who engaged in acts of violence and discounts the responsibility of the real commanders behind the scenes reflects a primitive judicial culture, out of line with international best practice.) The climate of violence that has been created in India today with black-coated stormtroopers attacking student leaders with the full complicity of the state is driven by a ‘patriotic rage’ that has been ‘manufactured’ (Rosenberg’s expression). Nationalism is mobilised to intensify the climate of violence with slogans like ‘You have insulted my country’, ‘you are anti-national’, and so on. I wanted to go on to talk about other things, but I think I’ll leave it at that.


Jairus Banaji, ‘Nationalism is the bedrock upon which all fascist movements have built themselves’, 20 March 2016,

Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, Second edn (Cornell University Press, 2009)

Des Raj Goyal, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (Delhi, 1979)

Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Harvard University Press, 1993)

Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Second edn (Cambridge, 2012)

Arthur Rosenberg, ‘Fascism as a Mass Movement’, Historical Materialism 20/1 (2012), pp. 133–89; reprinted in J. Banaji (ed.), Fascism: Essays on Europe and India, Second edn (Three Essays Collective, 2016)

Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, translated Theodore Wolfe (1946), accessible here: